The “Most Important Decision”

Annually, the business of human and sex trafficking is making huge profits; billions and billions of dollars. After drugs and arms, it is the third-largest criminal industry in the world. Every fourth victim of forced labour is a child, and so is every fifth person forced into prostitution. Contrary to common belief, human and sex trafficking is not only an issue in underdeveloped countries, half of the profit is raised in industrialized countries: It happens in Europe. It happens in the USA. It could be happening in your town. 

Maddie Melton, a graduate from Li Po Chun UWC in Hong Kong only found out about this phenomenon when she came to LPC, but has played an active role in the fight against human trafficking ever since. Here she tells us about the students initiative “Students against Slavery”, her trips to AFESIP camps in Cambodia, where former sex slaves are cared for and guided towards a brighter future, and her hopes and doubts on completely diminishing sex slavery and human trafficking. Read and spread!

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I didn’t know anything about human trafficking or modern day slavery until I got to UWC in Hong Kong. Like most people, I equated slavery with the trans-Atlantic slave trade of several centuries ago and had never heard the term slavery used to refer to something happening today. Everyone spends their childhood and youth studying history and all the terrible things that happened in the past, but it’s interesting how we spend more time in school learning about that than what’s really happening in the world today. During my first semester at LPC, I heard a bit about human and sex trafficking from events run by our student initiative “Students against Slavery” (SAS), but I was not in the group and my understanding of the issue was still quite limited. I signed up for the SAS trip during project week that year because I was curious to learn more and because I was eager to join a trip that wasn’t just for “fun and cultural exploration” but that really seemed to be making a difference. Looking back, it was definitely one of my most important decisions at UWC. When I got back from project week, I joined SAS and it has been a continuous learning experience since then.

In SAS we tried to explore and address the issue of human trafficking from as many angles as possible. Firstly, we try to educate ourselves. We watched movies, read and discussed articles, and talked with key figures of the anti-trafficking movement, particularly in Hong Kong. We also tried to spread the information to our peers at LPC and students at other secondary schools in Hong Kong by giving presentations and helping several to start their own anti-trafficking groups. We passed out information at the 24 Hour Race, a big inter-school sports event that tries to raise money for the battle against human trafficking. And we also hosted a day-camp on campus where we tried out a human trafficking simulation activity for the first time – and it worked great! A lot of members of the group also had independent projects going on, such as writing articles for newspapers in their home countries or fundraising for AFESIP, the organisation we visit in Cambodia during the project week trips, after they graduated from LPC.

AFESIP stands for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations and runs three centres that are homes for Cambodian girls who have been rescued from sex slavery or volatile sexual abuse situations. Sex trafficking in Southeast Asia is widespread, and like sex slaves all over the world, the girls are treated brutally; being gang raped, sewn back up and sold over and over again as virgins, forced into drug addition to keep them dependent on their pimps, beaten and tortured, and forced to service twenty to thirty clients a day. Many are sold by their own families! Two of the AFESIP centres care for girls who were rescued when they were older than fifteen. In the centres, they learn skills in sewing, weaving, or hairdressing and get set up with their own business after several years at the centre. This gives them the chance to start a new life and to have a job that will feed them and their family and it also tries to prevent them from falling back into their past situations due to the need for money. The third home is for girls who were rescued when they were younger than fifteen years old, some are as young as four or five! They have the chance to go to school, and some even go on to university.

The organisation does a great job providing a home for the girls. But when we go there, we cannot forget that everyone who was supposed to care for them formerly has mistreated these girls. They want love and support more than anything. Many of them have missed out on their childhood, and the chance to play games and just relax is wonderful. While we’re in the centres, our first goal is to try to show them as much love as possible. We want them to know that we are there for them. The partnership has been going on for a long time and the girls know Stella, a teacher at LPC and Dave, her husband, very well, so even though the group of us students changes a bit from year to year, they trust the consistency of our visits and love hearing from co-years and friends how the people who visited in the past are doing. For our visits, we bring along several games and dances as well as drama and art activities. The centre provides for the girls’ basic needs, but they rarely get to do so many of the activities that I took for granted while growing up, and we basically try to bring a week of fun to the centre. Additionally, we’ve also recently started integrating an English program. They’re eager to learn English and our visits are a great chance for them to practice. Speaking English greatly improves the opportunities available to them when they leave the centres and start looking for jobs, and it’s also critical because some of them are eager to become advocates against trafficking in the future. Speaking English allows them to share their story with the world.

Finally, we try to integrate therapy activities into the trip. The girls don’t get too much therapy at the centre, (although this is changing!), which is unbelievable given what they’ve been through. Of course, we’re not professionals and we don’t want to enter territory that we can’t handle, but we do try some art and drama activities that give them the space to share and reflect. We have faced very positive results so I’m confident that we’re not doing any additional harm but are actually helping the girls. In fact, I cannot express how much our visits mean to the girls. When I was there this summer, they showed me pictures of all the LPC students that had ever visited the centre. They remembered all of their names, and asked how each one was doing. They were so excited to hear about these former visitors and would repeat their names over and over. They sent me away with personalised notes written painstakingly in English, and asked all of us when we would be able to come back again. The girls also had another request, which was very important to them personally: They asked us to tell everyone in our home countries about them and their stories, to make sure that all the men, women, and children suffering from sex slavery and human trafficking don’t remain invisible. This showed me that they know there are many girls like them still suffering in Cambodia, and they want to be heard and know that there are people out there who care about all of them.

I have never doubted for one second that our visits are extremely valuable and important to the girls, and to everyone who undertakes such a trip. One of the moments that showed this to me most clearly happened on the last night of our project week to AFESIP this March. We were having a small party and at the end we handed out presents, letters, and photographs to all of the girls. The girl who received her bag last was very new to the centre; I think she had only been there a few weeks or months. We handed her the bag and her entire face changed, but she didn’t say anything. It literally looked as if no one had ever given her a gift before in her entire life. There’s a good chance that assumption is true. The girls come from places I cannot imagine in my nightmares. Their stories consist of betrayal after betrayal, violation, pain… There are no words to describe what they’ve been through. Their strength is truly a miracle. We cannot, unfortunately, take those memories away, but we can do our best to make their new memories full of love, laughter, and fun. When I think about what I’m saying actually, it makes me angry in a sense to realize that I used so much of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ However that’s not really how it is! These trips are about relationships, about bonding and loving, learning from each other, making friends and recognising that we all come from different places and experiences, some straight out of the depths of hell, but that we have to make the most of what we have now, and never stop fighting.

Now that I’m studying in the Netherlands, I don’t know how possible it will be for me to return to the centres in Cambodia for several years, but I’m definitely committed to staying connected to the issue. Over the summer, I spoke with quite a few people in my hometown in the U.S. and I’ve been fundraising for AFESIP for the past several months. Right now I’m starting to organise an anti-trafficking group at my university that I hope will eventually operate similarly to SAS. And sex trafficking is definitely not an issue that is restricted to Southeast Asia. It has been a particularly huge problem in the Netherlands since prostitution became legal in 1988. In the coming months I’m hoping to get connected with organisations working to fight sex trafficking in this part of the world.

Prostitution is called the oldest profession, and surely forced prostitution (more aptly to be called sex slavery) is only an extension of that. As the world becomes more global, people have access to more wonderful goods, services and platforms for sharing than ever before, but lots of terrible industries like slavery and trafficking businesses also use these products of modernisation to grow. Trafficking is an extremely multi-layered issue, and facing it will take dedicated force on every front: both the supply and demand side of exploitation, political motivation and enforcement of anti-trafficking policies, community outreach and education, rescue and rehabilitation… Honestly, I don’t know how much hope I have that this issue will improve significantly in the next few generations, but that absolutely does not mean I think we should stop trying to fight it. If even just one person is rescued from the clutches of trafficking, the effort has been worth it. I was initially sceptical about this business of “raising awareness” that never seems to do anything concrete, but now I think that’s just my own ego needing validation. If I give a talk for five hundred people, maybe only two will care enough and remember enough to tell others, but maybe that information will eventually make its way to someone with the political influence, money, or skills to really do something. The scope of this problem is too big to imagine, but we must keep talking and making the best use of our own skills to do what we can.

For more information on human and sex trafficking, please also view the following links and resources:

  • Anti-trafficking organisations in Cambodia, South East Asia: AFESIPAPLE
  • Somaly Mam: The Road of Lost Innocence (book)
  • “Not My Life”, “Cambodia: The Virginity Trade”, “Nefarious: Merchant of Souls” (movies)
  • and these regional organisations that are doing all they can to prevent trafficking from a variety of angles: Polaris Project (USA), Liberty Asia (Asia), La Strada (Europe)

Photo: Maddie (girl on the very right) with a group of other students who went on an anti-trafficking trip to Kampong Cham, Cambodia, in March.

Finding A Purpose For Life

From now on, having settled into university, I will slowly start relaunching this blog. This new story is from Mustafa, a UWC graduate from Iraq who tells us how he found his purpose and passion for life: A magazine to share young opinions to create a better world. Never heard of Independent Skies? It’s about time. Enjoy! 

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I am an Iraqi. I went through many tough experiences while growing up. My family is built on principles that you start learning at a very young age: To be men, to face the battle against life, not to let it pull you down. As a child I witnessed war. One day I was coming home from school in first grade and the war siren suddenly went off. I heard the sounds of jets and rockets. That is something very marking in one’s life and changes your attitude when people complain about insignificant things, or not everything works as you want it to.

In 2010 I was admitted to Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong. I was of course thrilled by the experience, but had one certain project in mind throughout the first one and a half years. Before my time at Li Po Chun UWC, I had sat down with my father and had told him about my grief of not being able to share my opinion to a larger audience and that I wanted to take action and contribute. We discussed this and slowly came up with the idea of an online magazine to share opinions and ideas. Initially, I was a little hesitant. I told my father: “Now that you told me this idea, it’s not going to be fully mine!” And he only answered: “Maybe I gave you the inspiration. But really: How many people can do it?” That was my motivating push and I spent the first year of LPC thinking about the project and how I was going to build it up. Eventually I got two of my co-years aboard, one of them being the designer, the other helping me to organize contributors, and we launched the first issue.

When we started Independent Skies Magazine, our object was to let people speak up. Authors could write in their own language or English and we would then edit their articles. Sometimes it may seem like a contribution is not good, but no: The content is perfect, and even if the English is far from it, it gets a message across. That’s the whole point. We want the youth to share their opinion and speak out to the world. Write what you want, we will edit grammar and spelling for you. But we will never say “No” to a writer. Our only requirement is politeness. Our aim is to create, innovate and share opinions and live together peacefully as a community. You have your opinion and I have mine. That is good, but let’s not fight over it. We need peace!

By now, we have no less than seventeen issues up. Our aim has remained the same: to let the youth of this world prove they are worth acknowledgement and to let them share their opinions, ideas and passions on the topics that move our society. Of course we aimed high from the very beginning. But sometimes things grow over your head and end up even bigger than you ever dreamed of. That is the case for Independent Skies Magazine. I wasn’t thinking we would make 4000 Likes in only this year. In the first fifteen months, we had around 700 likes and didn’t quite move forward from that. Suddenly, after one week we were at 1000, after three weeks at 2500. I was very surprised and asked myself: Wow, what happens here? And until today, the numbers keep gradually increasing. It’s going great – but it can always go better.

Studying Communication at the IE University in Spain, my studies are really related to what we are doing with the magazine. That is great, because I have people and teachers around me who are genuinely interested in this project. With one of my teachers I will soon take a closer look at the statistics and insights of the Facebook page and website of Independent Skies, because I’m not very satisfied with the interaction between the magazine and its followers. For my other project, We are Baghdad, whenever I post something, people become emotionally attached and react with likes and comments. I miss this interaction and feedback from our Independent Skies audience. When we post the new issue and look at the website statistics, I can see that fifty people took a look at the magazine within an hour, but Facebook will mark few or no likes at all. I know, people are aware of us and take action to keep themselves updated – but not visibly. I want to change that.

Independent Skies Magazine is also launching smaller projects. In August we had our first ISM Workshop in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Its topic was youth leadership and event organization and we had chosen a handful of participants to join us. The workshop went fantastic. We all benefited from good interaction, great ideas and remarkable brainstorming. The aim of the workshop was related closely to the Independent Skies mission: To get people to act and become involved. We want the youth to take initiative! When there is a project, often many want to volunteer for it, but only few dare to become leaders. There is a burden on doing big things since it takes time and responsibility. But you will always need leaders. That is why this workshop was dedicated to, in two days, show the participants how they could lead others towards action. In the end, we came up with a brilliant project: Project Manila. You know, in this capital, there are many, many homeless people.  Our idea was to make university students donate 20 pesos each, which is less than a euro. But in the Philippines it is a lot for poor people, and nothing for those who can afford it. With this money we want to build bicycle taxis, pedi-cabs, painted in sky-blue, the color of Independent Skies. Eventually, we would give each homeless person one of these bicycles. Of course, this project is still handled rather silently: We don’t want to give too many promises that we might not be able to handle in the end. But the aim is to eliminate homeless people in Manila by 2020. The pedi-cab will give them a sort of shelter and, more importantly, a form of work. It will not make them rich, but they will earn a living.

After I saw how well the workshop in Manila went, I became very motivated and encouraged. I think I can even dare to say that we will open an office in four to five years and print the magazine. It’s a big aim and sometimes I face obstacles. But they won’t hold me back. One year ago, in September 2012, I had a near death experience in Dubai. The car flipped over with me, my brother and three cousins in it. Apart from haunting me till today, this experience pushed me towards the future. I now know how easy it is to die and to lose everything you have. But I now also know that there is a purpose to my life and a reason for me having another chance: I believe it is to change the world to a better place.

(Photo: Mustafa (on the right) at the Independent Skies Workshop in Manila)

“Life Time Memories”

It is my first time to have talked to a future UWC student! Angelos Angelidis (16) is just about to finish 10th grade in his high-school in Greece and will be one of two Greek students to visit a UWC next year. His destination: Hong Kong! I skyped with him the other day and he told me about his path towards LPCUWC, his expectations and aspirations for the future.

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Finding out about UWC from family friends in eighth grade, I applied to UWC because I wanted something different, something that wasn’t ordinary.  My aunt has a friend who’s daughter had been to the UWC Maastricht. That girl told me all about her time in the Netherlands and what an exciting experience it was, getting me very enthusiastic about the movement and the idea behind it. She told me: “If you have the guts and believe that you deserve the spot, go for it. You have nothing to loose and the experience you might gain there will stick with you for a life time”.  In some way, she inspired me to apply to UWC. My main objective was to become friends with teenagers from all over the world. In Greece, we don’t have this sense of internationalism at our schools and generally our society is not as multicultural as others. Yet alone the educational system, the IB, is much more advanced than here in Greece so I was overall attracted to the whole experience UWC offered me. From the very start, I didn’t care which college I would be sent to, if I was selected. I just wanted to be a UWC student, that’s all.

For the generation 2013-15, only twenty students had applied from all over Greece, and there is only one scholarship for Greek students. At the interview process they had asked us how we would represent Greece if other students asked us about our country’s economic situation. I personally think such is mainly a result of the political crisis we have in Greece. The main problem is that our politicians don’t really care about the people of Greece, but only about themselves. They are manipulating others so that they can gain money and this corruption has greatly contributed to the economic crisis in Greece. The committee also asked what things I would take with me to UWC in order to represent my country. I will bring many pictures of the natural beauty of Greece, and a book with the poems of my favorite Greek poet. However, when I got out of the interview I was so nervous that I forgot all other questions they had asked me and I just went to wait for the decision.

After the single scholarship had been given to a girl for Red Cross Nordic, I got into the clearing process together with four other girls. This was like a waiting list, where we were the final candidates in case the girl would not accept the scholarship and there had to be a new student. While on this waiting list, I already started to plan a second application for the next year, preparing for the interviews and writing new essays. I wanted to go to UWC so eagerly that I thought: “Why not try again and maybe you will be lucky”. And after all, I didn’t expect any positive results from the clearing process. But one day, I got a phone call and our national committee said that they could give a second scholarship and with such I would be able to go to Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. I could not believe it.

Hearing of this decision, I spent all day thinking about LPC and imagined, how life would be there. I wondered about the sports for example. I do Karate and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to continue it in Hong Kong. But now I know that even if some sports are not offered, I can use my talent and knowledge and open groups to teach it to the other students. That sounds very exciting and I might do that, if I’m not too shy. But I also want to explore other activities and new sports, too. Since I am involved in running and marathons, I am for example very enthusiastic to join the organizational team of the 24-Hour-Race. I was also considering taking part in Coral Monitoring, English Debate and the Anti-Trafficking Group. I came to the conclusion that there is an abundance of activities in school I want to join and that I’ll have to organize my time very, very well. I really hope to contribute to the community with my creativity. On Facebook I am already in contact with some of my co-years and we are planning to make more promotional videos for the college, so that in countries like Greece more students learn about UWC. I’d also like to get involved in UWC TV because I think that is great for prospective students, as they can see what life at a UWC is really like.

When I think about UWC, I cannot say what I look forward to most. What I worry about a little is that I will not get along with some of the students and won’t be able to cope with the schedule. It’s a bit frightening. What if I fight with my roommate?! Though I have been outside of Greece before – I visited Venice and Germany – this time it will be different; I’ll be at the other side of the world, all on my own. Still, of course I also look forward to it. I even think that through UWC I will become a better person. I will be far from my family and learn to appreciate the things I have at home; I will become more open and tolerant and it will also broaden my academic horizons, through Theory Of Knowledge, for example.

I hope to become inspired by the LPC community. I admire its passion for changing the world. In Greece there is no passion for education anymore, since even students who graduate from university often don’t find a job afterwards. Career prospects in Greece are almost non existent by now and we have one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe. The trust in education has vanished with the economic crisis, young people are disillusioned. Their lives have become much harder, they think about themselves first. No matter how excited I am about experiencing a new atmosphere, I think that the one home makes me who I truly am, helps me to overcome other difficulties, and lets me become stronger. After all, my aspirations to look for something better root in this social background of mine. For me, education is what shapes people’s character and personality. Many believe that there is no ideal educational system. But I am certain that there is! I don’t mean the International Baccalaureate, but the UWC movement as whole, since it combines education with a deeper understanding of the world. Getting people to understand global issues such as poverty, war, social discrimination and environmental degradation at such a young age is not easy. But UWC manages to do so in only two years of experience. I find that very fascinating.

After UWC I want to study maybe in Scotland, get a good job and of course visit Greece to spend my holidays with friends and family whenever I can. What I want to work as in the future doesn’t have to do with politics or economics, so I’m not sure if it makes sense to go back to Greece since I won’t be able to help fixing the country’s situation. I want to study Biology and specialize in something about the environment, later on working to help our planet. We have way overloaded it and exploited all the earth’s resources. I would like to convince the world to be more eco-friendly. This is also, why I’m very excited that LPC offers Environmental Systems and Societies as a subject. In Greece there is no subject that focuses on environmental issues, so this would be very new, special but also perfect for me and my interests. I think it’s important that we preserve that natural habitat of our planet for the next generation. A guy who won the nobel prize for peace once said: “We are the first generation who has to decide through our ethic decisions, if we also want to be the last generation.” I think that is very true, and that’s where I want to contribute.

I am really looking forward to studying at LPC. I think these are going to be the best two years of my life, with life time memories to keep inside me forever. But from all what I mentioned – careers prospects, open doors to the world and a great educational system -, what really counts for me is that I will meet and make friends with inspiring young people from all over the world. I believe the international atmosphere at UWC cultivates a very multicultural character in each and every student, supporting the creation of a sustainable and peaceful future for our world. I want to be part of that. It is as Ghandi said: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Photo: Angelos (center) in a school play he participated in this year. 

I Create, Therefore I Am

2012 Bita graduated from LPCUWC, where she had been finally able to develop her passion for the arts. Already a year ago, a photograph from her IB Theatre Project “Skin And Bones” was displayed at Times Square. She now looks forward to interning in New York City for her fall semester. Bita told me about her path into the arts and her personal progress after leaving the “oppressive government” of Iran behind. Screen Shot 2013-06-02 at 09.12.55

Before coming to Li Po Chun United World College, I did have private lessons by independent artists. Out of personal interest, I had visited a few workshops or done visual art on my own – but I was never effectively taught. Even when coming to Hong Kong the arts originally took a secondary, even non-existent role in my curriculum. I had skipped two years of high school, so I started the IB when I was only fifteen years old. Back in my old school, I had been very good at Math and Physics, but when I came to Hong Kong, taking those subjects among so much older and more advanced students was very challenging. I often cried when leaving the classes and was generally in a very desperate state, yet it didn’t appear to me that the solution might lay in changing subjects.

However, I was very lucky to have an incredibly loving and understanding roommate, Jay Bell, who helped me to create and develop the new, real me. Taking double-arts herself, and seeing how much I struggled, she inspired me to follow my dream of becoming a dancer and choreographer. She motivated and supported me in my decision to try and switch to IB Theatre and Visual Arts, so that is what I did. And it turned out to be wonderful. For Visual Arts for example, I had not been aware that I was to choose my own theme and do whatever I wanted to. I thought I was going to take art classes; maybe one day we would learn how to paint, one day how to draw. That was after all how it had been at home, they had never left you space to explore, at least not in high school. But this approach to the arts was very new new to me – one could even say, shocking. And yet, it was only through this manner of learning, that my self could fully develop and grow into the arts. What makes art so special and dear to me? Its purity. With art I am able to look into the deepest of my sole and vomit out my anguish. It is not easy to lie with art, because self expression has its own truth – unlike doing business or politics for example! The process of creation is part of who I am: I am a creative human being, I create. Therefore, I can never live without doing so. Andrew Asnes once said: “Dancing allows me to explore myself in so many ways, to learn about my limitations and strengths, my ability to cope with adversity and to go farther than I thought I could. You find out what you’re made of.” I could not agree more.

Studying the International Baccalaureate overall had a huge influence on me. The IB has a very comprehensive approach to learning: You are supposed to understand, evaluate and analyze, always with a critical eye – while in schools back home in Iran you are just asked to read and memorize. That was an important difference, because if you only memorize, you forget the next day, but if you understand, know and learn, then you won’t forget. Just as the Chinese Proverb says: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” This was also the reason why I eventually applied to UWC. I simply wanted a better education. First I found out about IB, and later stumbled over UWC. From the very start it was very fascinating to see that such schools exist; bringing people from all around the world together to study. It was so ideal that my mother and I first thought this might not be real, but some company that steals money. We had to do a lot of research to find out that it’s a real institution, and little could I know how much it would change my life.

When coming to LPC in my first year, it was very terrible to perceive how hard it was for me to express myself. I was finally in a school where I could say my opinion on all matters, even outside of classroom discussions, and I had all this freedom – but it was terrible to feel that I was simply not able to embrace it. That was definitely something I wanted to explore from the very beginning: On one side how the youth in Iran faces this lack of expression because of the oppressive government and conservative society, and on the other side the progress that I had made myself and the affect that newly gained freedom of speech and expression had on me. This progress was nothing I was constantly aware of, since I was in it myself, but at some point I just realized how far I had come overall. That is what I wanted to look into more, and choosing my own theme in IB Visual Arts allowed me to do so. After my TOK class for example, where I had the freedom to speak out and yet felt isolated and confused because I couldn’t express myself, I created the art piece where I have words written all over my face. I think it was without doubt the whole environment at a UWC, the community conjoined with the IB, that lead me through the progress I made.

In my second year, I choreographed and directed my own Independent Project for Theatre: “Skin and Bones”, a dance performance based on my life experience and personal background in Iran. Dance had always been a big passion of mine, but I could never really pursue it since I was born in a country where dance is effectively banned. Living in Iran, where freedom is oppressed, has empowered me to search for my voice in dance – and to find it there. You can always dance, even if it’s only in your heart. “Skin and Bones” had a huge influence on me. The reactions I got from the audience were beyond what I had expected and I realized: Without any background, this was what I had created, and those were the reactions I got! It was overwhelming. And I decided, that I was definitely going to go ahead and pursue this passion. When starting my university research, I kept my eyes open for dance programs at the universities. I had always aimed at a liberal arts college, because I didn’t want to be too narrow-minded yet, but wanted to explore different courses and kinds of art. In the end I was even accepted to the universities I wanted to go to, but due to financial issues I didn’t land in any of my first choices.

Instead, I ended up at Earlham College. There is no dance program here. In my freshman year I took art and theatre classes, but they don’t really interest me. So I think now I am going to move towards Peace and Global Studies with the focus on praxis, which means social movement and community building. And I realized, that those aspects are exactly where art can get involved and what art can do: Build and support communities, develop social activity. I may take it as my major; I think I need the knowledge. Art can be created for two purposes: Either art for the sole sake of it, or art for change and conveying a message. I’ve always wanted to do the later. I never wanted to be just an artist, I wanted to be an activist artist. So I will need to know more about international relations and politics to improve the message and meaning of my art. This desire to be involved in activism through my art has definitely been shaped by UWC. After all, at LPC we were always critical, always discussed everything and never did something just for the sake of it, but always had a larger idea behind. This defined and developed my own mindset a lot.

When looking into the future I see many, many plans laying ready for me to grasp and follow. One of my biggest dreams is to have my own dance company, but I have in mind to bring all forms of art – dance, film, lightning, costume design, poetry etc. – into the performances of this dance company. Further, art is perfect to explore social and political issues. It can for example explore the Mohammad cartoons and examine them in a critical way, or just generally asses for example the role of riots when it comes to the individual desire for freedom. I am also thinking about another project, “Voices for Iranians”. “A Separation” for example was the first Iranian movie that won a Foreign Language Oscar nomination and its director said: “I love making film in Iran, and I would never decide to do that somewhere else.” Lately I have been looking up a lot of Iranian artists who work are still in Iran and work there. I also really want to go back and make a difference there, because I think it is not fair for me as Iranian to leave my country and not give back to home. For the nearer future, I am considering a Master’s Degree in Dance or Art Education, so that I can then go and work as a UWC teacher myself. After all, I feel like I have to give back to the community at some point, because it has given me so much. I believe that UWC teachers themselves are very activist; they go on Project Weeks, help in the CAS initiatives, and effectively give their idealism and enthusiasm for activism and change on to the students.

Indeed, what I personally appreciated most while I was still at UWC, were the teachers. Practically growing up without a father, my teachers became huge characters in my life – father figures, in a way. Whenever I would become homesick or upset, I could just visit them and talk, till midnight. I always felt very welcomed and that is something I will never forget; what they were to me. I will always remember the moment after the first dress rehearsal of “Skin and Bones”, when our teacher was supposed to give us feedback and we were sitting in a line at the edge of the stage, looking at him and waiting for some response. He just repeatedly shook his head and look down to the floor, looked back at us and didn’t say a word. We started giggling, because we didn’t know if it had been that good or that bad, and that is when his chin started trembling. He was choked, and he only said: “I thought it was brilliant” – and then he just started crying. It was very moving and touching for me. As a teacher, he was effectively, as I was used to it from back home, an authority figure for me. Seeing him open up and show his feelings to me, was just incredible. He was one of the few people who always told me: “It’s never too late, you can always do whatever you want. Just believe in yourself.”

Photo: Extract of one of Bita’s pieces for IB Visual Arts; the mentioned self-portrait. Originally called “In my face”, she later re-named it “Confusion”.

The Common Ground of Acting and Activism

Martin (18) from Kochani, Macedonia, was possibly one of the most outstanding actors at Li Po Chun United World College before he graduated in 2013. Martin told me how he started theatre in his childhood and explained what exactly acting means to him.482596_4838211825540_865264357_n

My love for theatre started way back in 5th grade, but actually I first came in touch with stage experience three years earlier. In my school we had regular ceremonies and shows and for one of them we were all asked to dance. As usual, I was late for the first rehearsal and as my teacher had already arranged the positions, I was put into the last row, where nobody could see me. However, it seemed that I was a good dancer and with time, our leading teacher made me move to the front, row by row. In the end I was appointed as the main dancer together with a girl, and we were treated like the stars of the show. Even a regional newspaper came to interview the girl and me, and days later we found ourselves on its cover page. Of course, my family and I were incredibly proud of this achievement. Seeing that this dance had been the first artistic thing I did and genuinely enjoyed from the start, this experience triggered my later passion for the stage.

I continued dancing with the girl and we learned more contemporary choreographies. We grew closer and better during that time and eventually, in fifth grade, we decided to participate in a national dance competition in the Section ’5th to 8th grade’. We won the third prize, an incredible achievement for us, considering that we were part of the youngest competitors and competed with dance couples from all over Macedonia! Yet there was a soon end to my only starting involvement in dance. A small boy dancing was seen as cute; but a teenage boy dancing was certainly not something built along the parameters of a hetero-normative society in which you are expected to behave according to the gender-stereotypes.

To my luck, nearly immediately after I had given up on dancing, two teachers came to my class in school. I still remember the moment very well: We had Macedonian class, I was a 5th grader and they asked our class of nearly thirty students, who would like to play a minor character in the school play that they wanted to produce. Twenty students raised their arm. I didn’t. I just didn’t think I would be a good performer: I was fairly bad at containing my emotions; when I started laughing I simply couldn’t stop and my mother had always jokingly said that I would never make a good actor. With all this in mind, I stayed quiet while everybody else was eager to get onto the list of candidates for the role. After class, my teacher, who had witnessed my silence, took me aside: “Why didn’t you raise your hand? I think you would be very good for the play!” She asked me if I would let her propose me for the role, and I agreed. That’s how I ended up getting the role.

My progress in the play was similar to what I had experienced in the dance show. Starting as a minor character, I advanced to more important characters of the play, till I eventually played the main character. Though that was an incredible honor for me, I was not sure how to feel about it myself – after all, an 8th-grader, someone superior to me in the student hierarchy, had to be downgraded in order for me to get that spot. It was a very uncomfortable situation! One year later, our play was taken to a national drama competition and I won the award as “Best Young Actor”. Of course, my school was immensely proud of me. As my town’s candidate, I was listed as one of the 18 most talented young people in Macedonia in Macedonia’s back then most popular teen magazine. However, this glorious aftermath is not the reason for which I still cherish this theater play as the most meaningful to me: It simply was my first theatre play ever. I always say that the first experience is of a crucial importance, because if you don’t like the first one, it is very likely that you are not going to like the ones that follow. In this sense, that play really shaped my perception of theatre and made me continue with it afterwards, too: I took drama classes in my home town and even acted a minor role in a movie.

This was till 8th grade. From then on, till I came to LPC, my focus shifted to more traditional academics: I was in a verymathematics-and-science-orientated boarding school, with no drama center and no theatre classes. When I got accepted to LPC, I was really glad to be able to do Theatre as Higher Level course here. For the previous two years I had done things that I liked but not particularly enjoyed, and I knew that I was really, really passionate about theatre.

I originally got involved in Theatre for the love of the stage and the heat of the lights on my face. I did not go into theater to change the world, I thought that is impossible. The plays I joined in Macedonia were all nice and entertaining, but due to their superficiality they never had a long-term impact on the audience or even on myself. At most, they made the spectators laugh. But all the plays I acted in here at LPC – if it’s “Marching for Fausa”, “The Laramie Project” or “Kissing Marianne” – had a large both emotional and intellectual impact on the audience; they covered significant social aspects, addressed issues of global importance and even touched my own hopes and aims for the future. I’m very grateful to Steve, our Theatre teacher, who showed to me that theater is not limited to impacting the actor’s live, but can and should also be a mean of transforming society. The emotional but simultaneously intellectual response from the audience, the fact that many of my co-years still approach me and say that ‘The Laramie Project’ really stimulated them to reconsider their views on sexuality, sexual politics, AIDS etc, as well as on the difference between tolerance and acceptance, really taught me that it is not a coincidence that the word acting and activism stem from the same root.

As I said earlier, when it comes down to specific characters, I love to play lunatic and complex characters full of contradictions, whose emotions are strangely ambivalent, comprising attitudes of cheerfulness, pain, irony, passion and regret all at once. That is why I loved acting in Kissing Marianne: I was able to enact on stage what I normally act only while taking long showers at home. At home, I sing and practice acting even in the shower. I pretend to be some crazy, confused character for all the time under the running water. Here in LPC, I can’t do that anymore – if people heard my crying and laughing in the shower, they would think that I have gone insane! In the beginning of the play “Kissing Marianne”, the audience cannot be certain if the events on stage are real or only happening in my head. I was not a perfectly sane character, even had traits of schizophrenia. Sometimes I was happy, but suddenly I could fall into pain and misery. You might remember; in the first scene I jumped around on the chairs, chanting “We will play, catch me, you can”, but from one instance to the next I said “God, I need you here, I need you so bad”. My mood there changes really quickly from childish and careless to depressed and melancholic. I also say “Hear me howl” – and that’s where are the feelings of before are merged and united in one long sound. That scene really represented what I love so much about complex characters – even though they are definitely harder to enact than stereotypical ones! I certainly identify with them quite easily.

Theatre is maybe one of the most important parts of my life. I will definitely take Theatre as a major in university, but I’m not sure if I will start an acting career. I might continue using theatre as weapon for social change. With applied theatre for example, I could work as a drama therapist in rehabilitation centers for victims of human-trafficking. Apart from that, I would however also like to set foot in the film industry.

Photo: Martin in “Kissing Marianne” (1994) by Godfrey Hamilton. © by Fernanda Lai

62 Miles and Runnin’

Maxim Moshnyakov, 18, from Finland, was possibly the icon of endurance running at Li Po Chun United World College before he graduated in 2013. In Hong Kong he participated in several marathons with fascinating motivation and admirable ease. In March he completed a marathon of 100 kilometers over the hills and mountains of Lantau Island, the Lantau100 – a mesmerizing achievement considering that Maxim only really got the kick of running when he came to Hong Kong two years ago.546427_4598751369180_1028492424_n

Before high school, Maxim’s physical activities included swimming and aikido, later he  also started casual cycling. He started doing triathlons in secondary school and ran his first half-marathon at the age of 14, with three more following later. However, in the year before coming to LPCUWC, he nearly completely abandoned all kinds of sports and focused on other extracurriculars, like the Finnish broadcast, national television and debating. Maxim explains that a main reason for him to start sports again was a promise to my co-year at the UWC in Swaziland: “I pledged that I would not debate and argue with people anymore and rather, whenever I felt the urge to, do sports instead. At first I was a bit skeptical about that idea, but it worked out very well.” Following their agreement, Maxim soon discovered his passion for sports again in Hong Kong, deciding that “running seemed most natural”. After all, he was also involved in both the Athletics and Youth Endurance Network Quan Cais and greatly inspired by his Finnish secondyear, and Hong Kong athlete Mary Hui, who also graduated from LPC last year and “always knew which races would be ideal to join, like the Green Power Hike” where the LPC team broke the twelve year record.

Soon Maxim was at the start of not only small races of 5 or 10k, but also competed in larger events, many in both years of his time at LPC. These included a 50k race, the 24-hour-race, organized by Chris Schrader’s Youth Endurance Network and fundraising for the battle against human trafficking in Nepal, the Sedan Chair Race – and now finally his first ever 100k ultra-marathon two weeks ago as youngest participant. When asking Maxim, how he himself would describe his attitude to running, he grins: “Hardcore.”

When hearing of an 18-year old, who has not even finished high-school yet, running one marathon or race after the other, one particular question lies near: Why?Maxim’s answer is short and simple: “Ultra-marathons are like an adventure. They actually challenge you! When you train for a 5 or 10k race, you just do the same thing over and over again. In my eyes there is no difference between running 5k in fifteen minutes or fifteen minutes and ten seconds. Of course, you also train for ultra-marathons, but it’s more demanding and requires more from your mental capability, too. You end up making yourself go forward, no matter what – even though it hurts like hell. I really have to encourage myself during an ultra-marathon; there is a voice in my head telling me to continue. Additionally, I let everything in life go through my head. It’s a very good opportunity for reflection, because you have the time to simply think.”

On Lantau, Maxim surely had lots of time for reflection, spending no less than twenty-five hours one the track, taking seven hours alone for the last 20k: “On the last part of the marathon, I ran out of salt tablets.  If I would have had one or two more of those, I could have saved up to three hours.” Lack of salt tables was not the only inconvenience Maxim faced during the marathon. The Lantau100 runs on most un-even terrain, including the highest peak of Hong Kong that one can climb (920 meters) after 70 kilometers of the race. Maxim agrees that his unawareness of the route heavily influenced his performance: Though he trained for the 100k, he couldn’t prepare specifically for the Lantau landscape, like many other of the runners did. Instead, he got into shape by doing the 50k race five weeks before and undertaking general runs with a backpack filled with rice packs. Of course, this training was not flawless: “I knew that I hadn’t prepared like I should have. I had Project Week, Coral Monitoring, the week right before the race; my muscles were sore from diving and I had caught a cough on the plane. But I didn’t let that matter. During my training, I should have done more up-hill running, though. What I was missing out most in my routine were height variants. In the Ma On Shan Country Park I run uphill for half of the path and downhill for the rest. In the Lantau100 I had to alternate running up and down a lot, so if I would do it again, I would go there and check the route beforehand.”

His lacking knowledge of the path further challenged him mentally on the way: “I didn’t know what to expect in particular, I just knew it was going to be hard. Especially since I was going to run at night. With time it became really annoying: You don’t know where the next checkpoint is, so you are in the dark and think ‘maybe it’s behind the next hill, the next corner, the next tree’. The uncertainty keeps you running, but from the very start I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to pace myself in the right way as I didn’t know the track. I wanted to avoid stupid mistakes as much as possible, such as running to fast or taking too much or too little rest at the checkpoints.”

Maxim started the marathon together with around a thousand other runners, 310 aiming for the 100k, 700 for the 50k. Both “teams” ran together for the first 25k, so “it was heavily packed and there was no space for anyone”. As soon as they separated, the 100k runners started to break apart, too: “Already after 30k, there were maybe three or four people in my sight, after 50k not more than one or two. For the last 20k I was basically alone. I saw other runners one in a while, but only for a brief moment; either when they passed me, or the other way around.” Eventually, after a whole day and night, Maxim was one of the 60% of runners who finished the ultra-marathon. The rest dropped out earlier due to injuries or exhaustion.

Now what did Maxim gain from this experience, apart from sore legs and a medal that says ‘finished’? “Now I know, that I’m able to do it”, he says. “I know that 100k on flat ground will be a lot easier and I’m already planning to register for a 100k in Finland this June. It is one of three 100k races in Finland that serve as championship for marathon runners. In fact, I’m aiming at participating in all three, which might give me the possibility to later on get assistance for European championships etc.” The 100k Maxim is going to run this summer is the second oldest in the world, with no point higher than 10 meters – a gigantic difference to his first ultra-marathon. The world-wide record for running 100k lies at six hours and ten minutes; the winner of this year’s Lantau100 finished the route in twice that time. Taking this into consideration, Maxim is expecting to spend only around nine hours on the 100k in June.

When it comes to his future aspirations in terms of ultra-marathons, Maxim’s enthusiasm is clear: “My next great challenge could take place in September 2014, when I hope to join the Sparthatlon: 245 kilometers in 36 hours…” It sounds impossible for such a young athlete to achieve. But Maxim is full of energy and motivation: “I would go for a 200k, a 500k; pretty much as far as it goes. This is just the very beginning.”

Photo: Maxim on one of his hikes in Hong Kong. © by Quentin Becheau

Two Birthdays But No Mother

Maria, 17, grew up as an orphan in a SOS children’s village in the Philippines from the age of nine and is now a student at Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. She told me how it feels to live without a mother, how her dreams of a career as Psychotherapist are influenced by her own life – and how from the day that I interviewed her on, she would celebrate her birthday twice a year.

At the age of five years, my mother left me and my brother. She gave us to her friend in the neighborhood and simply disappeared. Our neighbors were farmers and they already had five children. When they couldn’t bring up enough money for us and themselves anymore, they brought us to the Department for Social Welfare and Development of our state, which protects the rights of us Filipinos. My brother and me were separated: I lived in a center for abused and orphaned girls, and my brother stayed with the family my mother had given us to. The DSWD tried to find our mother, but when they asked her to take us back she refused and handed the responsibility over to the government. That was how I officially became an orphan.

At the age of seven, I was passed on to a foster family, and as I had told the DSWD I did not want to be separated from my brother, we were now able to stay together. Life in the foster family was not ideal, but alright. They took good care of us, yet they had a son of their own, and we could always feel, who the parents favored. Everything was different between him and us. We were of the same age, but whenever he did a mistake it was blamed on me, for example when we played in the same room and he messed it up. “You are the girl, you should be cleaning this”, they said. I knew that was not the real reason. Still, I was happy that I had a place to stay, so I tried not to care.

After spending two years with this family, my brother and me moved again. The government decided it was time to put us into a long-term-center: the SOS children’s village in Davao. My first day in the village was the 23rd of July in 2004, I remember it exactly. I can not describe how it felt seeing this new home for the first time. It was amazing, and right from the start I felt like having finally arrived. There were fourteen houses in the village, and in each lived eight to eleven children. Every house was led by a mother who was even acting like a mother. Our mothers were all single, and if they married they retired from their motherhood and left the village. The children in a house were brothers and sisters, and even though we came from different backgrounds, we all had similar stories. We all went to school outside of the village. Most of the children don’t do very well in their subjects. The majority of the children in these villages don’t have a chance. I think they are very influenced by their backgrounds. These children simply cannot overcome their past, and that endangers them.

Sometimes few of us have to leave the village. The two most common reasons are failing your subjects, or pregnancy. If you become pregnant while you live in the village, you are asked to leave. Some years ago, that happened to one of my sisters. She both did bad in her subjects and got pregnant from her boyfriend in town. The village sent the girl to live with her biological sister. Her boyfriend left her, our sister ended up living in poverty, and after she gave birth to her child, she left it with her sister, orphaned as she is herself, and ran away with another man. I hear these kind of stories so often that I sometimes have the feeling it is very typical in our country: Women leaving their children and running away with a new man. But then I see all the happy families around and I remember that this is not normality.

Separation is my greatest fear; the kind of separation when you know you will not see somebody ever again. I have been separated with my loved ones far too often and it has caused me so much of pain that I cannot imagine anything being worse. I don’t know why my own mother left me. I heard she was a prostitute and did not have enough money for her children. I don’t know if that is true. Sometimes I have flashbacks, remembering how she took us to the houses of strangers, witnessing her intimacy with them. I don’t know if my mind creates these memories from what I hear, or if they are true. In the end they always seems very real to me.

When I first applied for a passport, it was very difficult. As I am not adopted, and because human trafficking is a big issue in the Philippines, I needed the documents of my parents. My guardian is our village director, but the government is very strict and said, they needed to see my mother. We had to find her, somehow, but we did not know where to look. For many years I hadn’t heard from her, so the social workers of our villages traveled to the province where she had been seen the last time. They went around all the towns, asking who had seen her. Finally, in July 2012, they called me, telling me that they found my mother and would bring her to the village the very same afternoon. I was very shocked by this sudden surprised. I became very emotional and did not want to see my mother. After all, she had left us. I thought I was over her, it had been so many years. I did not want to cry. I prepared myself not to break down in front of her, I cried all noon, till she came. When I stepped in front of her I was strong.

My mother cried. She stood in front of me, begging for forgiveness, saying she was sorry, saying she had no choice. I forgave her. I asked her, who my father was, and she told me his name. I had never heard it before. I also asked for my real birthday. In the SOS children’s village, we always celebrated it on November the 15th. There would be a big party with a program of dance and music; the whole village came together to eat cake and be happy. My mother told me, my real birthday is October 27th. Yes, that is today. Today, I celebrated my real birthday for the first time in my life. From now on, I will celebrate twice a year. I won’t change my official birthday in November. That takes time and money. But it is good that I know, and I am grateful that my mother told me.

My mother stayed in our village that night. I came to see her and we talked. We both felt a little clumsy and awkward, but I listened to what she had to say. I learned that she is currently serving the government, cleaning and washing their dishes. My brother did not join our conversations. We two are on good terms, but still not very close, because we never learned how siblings interact with each other.  Sometimes I wish I could simply go to him and ask him, if everything is okay. But I can’t: He is faking his joy and happiness all the time – and I won’t be the one to make him serious. He hasn’t forgiven our mother yet. He came to see her, but didn’t speak a word. To me, he said, she is a slut, a whore. Somehow that hurt and it only enhanced our barrier.

I think, we children from SOS villages need somebody to understand us. We are so full of pain that nobody can even imagine, that we just hide it in ourselves. It’s not only because we lack parents, a normal family. It is because of how society sees us. I was bullied very often in elementary school, because I was an orphan. You can imagine it being like in a movie: “Orphan, orphan, you don’t have a mother,” they would scream, and dance around me in break time. It was mostly boys, and I ended up punching and kicking them aggressively. I got into trouble very often for these fights, but whenever I tried to explain, nobody listened. Nobody cared.

Now that I am in the SOS children’s village, much has changed for me. Daddy Bem-Bem, who used to be a SOS child himself and now serves the organization as a village director in Davao, is my greatest source of inspiration. He helped me throughout my toughest times. He gives me confidence and makes me believe in myself. His words and stories guide me whenever I make decisions. I grew up without a father and the presence of Daddy Bem-Bem helped me a lot in terms of accepting this reality.

We children are wounded. We don’t only suffer from emotional stress, we don’t only feel misunderstood – we don’t understand ourselves either. After secondary school I want to study psychology. I will become a psychotherapist, go back to the Philippines and serve the SOS children’s villages. What we children mostly need are people who can help us and who know what we have been through. We need people who can look inside of us, who don’t believe our smiles when we fake them. In our village they only send children to a psychologist if their problems become very evident by their behavior. But so many of us feel ignored in their feelings. I was considered a very happy child in our village, because I love to laugh and interact with others. They never thought they’d need to send my to a psychotherapist, but they don’t know what’s going on inside of my heart.

I think I would have needed a psychotherapist. That might sound very selfish, but I think it is rather rational. I don’t have parents. I don’t know where I am from. I just live on and on, but nothings attaches me to my past. When I was in my elementary years and christmas or graduation came, all the families celebrating with their children., I could never control my jealousy. Now I start to learn to express myself. I think when I am a psychologist I can finally understand my own fate. Only when I am at peace with myself can I fulfill my biggest dream: that is to inspire people. I want to go back to my country and see that the people who know my story, are motivated by the beautiful outcome of the hard times that I have encountered. Life does not need to be dark. You are the one who defines where you go.